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Fitness & Health

23rd Nov 2018

Free weights or machines: which are better for building size and strength?

Should your workouts revolve more around free weights or resistance machines? We look at the pros and cons of both training tools

Alex Roberts

When looking to build muscle mass, should your workouts revolve more around free weights or machines?

The simple answer would be that you need both weights and resistance machines – but leaving it there would not tell the whole story.

Both have distinct advantages and disadvantages. It’s up to you to consider these and then structure your training programme in line with what suits you best.

Fundamental Free Weights?

Lifting free weights such as barbells and dumbbells ensures your joints and smaller supporting muscles also grow to stabilise the weight you’re lifting.

Pushing for a bench press PB isn’t just about big pecs, shoulders and triceps. It demands strong and sturdy rotator cuffs and well-developed stabilising muscles in the upper back to keep your technique on point.

In those returning from injury or illness, caution is needed when it comes to using free weights. They can build and strengthen your joints, but they can also break them if you’re not careful.

If you’re coming back from a long lay-off or you aren’t feeling right, you could make a case for starting with machines and building back up from there.

Men Versus Machines?

Resistance machines are great for isolating a muscle. This is particularly useful for bodybuilders who seek to overload each muscle with a lot of volume in a single workout.

Machines were originally invented as a means of helping those recovering from injury still get a session in. For example, if you’ve suffered a lower back injury then squatting with a barbell would be problematic. A more sensible option, at least in the short term, would be to use a leg press machine or isolation exercises via quad extension or hack squat.

What machines miss out on is stability. They have a fixed range of motion, which is safer on your joints but also does a lot less to build and strengthen them.

Many modern lifestyle habits (such as desk jobs) have a tendency to create weaknesses in areas such as the shoulder joint and so extra mobility work with free weights would help counteract that.

The Overall Picture

For the majority of people, free-weight exercises should form the basis of a solid training program.

Think of your joints as the midpoint of a see-saw. If that becomes weak, the see-saw becomes weak and could break. The same could arguably be said for your body. If your joints are weak, then not only will you miss out on your ultimate strength potential but it also poses a risk of injury when lifting.

Training tools don’t stop at free weights and machines, though. Kettlebells, cable machines, sandbags, strongman equipment and many other pieces of kit should form part of your wider training plan.

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